The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)
Director: Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Zack Gottsagen
Synopsis: Zak runs away from his care home to make his dream of becoming a wrestler come true.
Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Drama
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 1 hr 33 min
Release Date: August 9, 2019
We often don't know how to handle situations involving mental disabilities or how to interact with those suffering from them. We're so used to going about our lives interacting with those exactly like us that, when we do come in contact with a different, unique individual, we tend to freeze up or immediately sympathize for them and treat them as lesser, rather than equals to us. And yes, those suffering with these disabilities have to be cared for differently, but they are still humans with the same emotions and capacity for love that we possess. They may not be "normal" people per say, but, to echo Forrest Gump's mother, "What does normal mean anyway?"
The Peanut Butter Falcon is the story of one such unique man's journey to free himself from the bonds of his condition--Down syndrome--to explore life and fulfill his childhood desire of becoming a wrestler. Zack Gottsagen (who suffers from Down Syndrome in real life) portrays Zak, a man living in a retirement home who's constantly trying to escape to find and train with his inspirational wrestler--The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). A little research into Zack Gottsagen reveals just how much the film serves as a biopic--Zack grew up dreaming of becoming an actor, even watching his co-star Shia LaBeouf on Even Stevens, hoping somehow to have the opportunity to work with him someday. Despite initial rejections into a performing arts school because of his disability, Zack's mom helped him fight to get in, and eventually through years of hard work, he became an actor, triumphing over the system that didn't believe in his ability to pursue his dream.
For that reason alone, this film is a triumph of the human spirit, and not the typical kind like climbing a mountain or surviving on an island or doing anything necessary to stay alive (though those movies are good, too). This film celebrates those who rarely get attention or the benefit of the doubt, or the same opportunities as the rest of us. And suffice it to say, Zack Gottsagen gives an engaging, memorable, and endearing performance that has equal parts humor and heart behind it. He also plays extremely well off LaBeouf (still a better actor than most people give him credit for---if you don't believe me watch Fury). LaBeouf plays Tyler, a man on the run to Florida after committing arson against two rival fishermen. Together, we come to realize just how similar the two of them are--both individuals on the run looking for a new life, both with tragic pasts and no family to speak of, and both looking for love and friendship. It yields for insightful, character-building conversation between the two of them that is filled with laughs, grief, and joy.
At its core, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a road trip movie, but, again, not in the traditional sense. These two characters are moving in the same direction, but have different destinations. Furthermore, they aren't driving--they're walking, swimming, and sailing, all the while evading capture from two different groups of people with entirely different motives. And while the film incorporates some suspense into the narrative, it's always about Zak and Tyler's unlikely relationship, and the joy they find in being in each other's company. Directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz hone in on the subtle, beautiful moments of life--like sailing on sunset painted waters or having late night partying and talks around a campfire or simply making each other laugh along the journey. All of these moments are beautifully captured, from a shot perspective to the acting and writing perspectives. And when Dakota Johnson's character Eleanor, Zak's concerned caretaker at the retirement home, comes into the picture more fully, we immediately see where the film is going. Yes, it's predictable but Nilson and Schwartz do the film favors by not overshadowing Zack and Tyler's relationship with a heavy-handed romantic relationship between Tyler and Eleanor.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is a heartfelt, funny, and endearing indie film that deserves praise for its celebration of those who aren't as fortunate as us "normal" people, while also importantly remarking how similar we all are as humans, regardless of any disability. In its simplest form, it's a celebration of life itself--spending time with the people we love and enjoying the little moments while we have the time to experience them. Few films that I've seen have touched on that idea as well as this film. And while its final act is predictable and even over the top in one instance, none of that overshadows the film's rich themes, poignant story, or solid acting. For a film made for probably less than $1 million (IMDb doesn't even have the official budget), it’s sometimes these kinds of stories that are the most powerful. And I hope they never vanish in the modern mega budget film industry.
Written by Anthony Watkins, August 26, 2019